(PURGES and HYSTERIA in the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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Hopes for Liberalization, and the Murder of Kirov

In 1934 the Soviet Union was still devoted to industrializing. It was trying to catch up, as Stalin had put it, rather than letting the other powers overwhelm them – Stalin's version of the Darwinian struggle, vaguely similar to Hitler's. By 1934, the Soviet Union had completed its collectivization of agriculture, and many Party members believed that it was time for reconciliation and a move closer to the communist ideal of happiness and liberty for all. The Communist Party was still supposed to be a family of comrades. The party readmitted some of Stalin's former opponents, the so-called Rightists, Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov, and it readmitted the so-called Leftists, the humbled Zinoviev, Kamenev and others of the old "United Opposition." Leon Trotsky, however, was in exile in Turkey, an outcast, trying to organize an alternative to Stalinist rule.

Democracy remained an ideal, and Communist Party members still believed in democracy within the Party. One such Party member was Sergei Kirov, who also sat on the Politburo and was leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad. It was easier for someone at the top to believe that democracy was functioning than it was for those who still looked with favor upon a dissenter or outcast like Trotsky. With other Party members, Kirov believed in the Leninist position that the Party should debate and then close ranks. Kirov also believed in class struggle and supported Stalin's positions concerning industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. He saw this use of force as having no parallel with fascism. Kirov was genuinely repelled by the barbarism of Germany's National Socialists. He saw Hitler's ideology as medieval. Kirov's wife was Jewish, and he disliked Hitler's anti-Semitism. He disliked dictatorship and rule by terror. He said that neither the burning of books nor "burning Communists at the stake" would not stop the international Communist movement. note78

On occasion, while continuing to support the Stalinist majority within the Communist Party, Kirov was outspoken in his defense of dissent. He recognized Stalin as the Party's foremost leader, but Stalin's personality annoyed him. He might argue with Stalin – as friends sometimes do. And Stalin, being the politician that he was, remained friendly with Kirov. The high-ranking Bolshevik, Molotov, after he retired in the sixties, would say that Kirov was Stalin's favorite. But Stalin had reason to be concerned about Kirov as a rival. Kirov was a good speaker and a Russian, without Stalin's accent. The Russian masses were inclined to favor their fellow Russians, and Kirov's show of intelligence, energy and concern added to his popularity outside and within the Party.

In 1934, 1,966 delegates to the 17th Party Congress met to elect members to the Central Committee. Many of the delegates believed that while Stalin had served the Party well, he was not the man to lead the Party into a new era of internal reconciliation. They looked forward to removing Stalin from the position of General Secretary and giving him some other work. A group of senior delegates approached Kirov and asked him if he would be interested in replacing Stalin as General Secretary. Kirov refused, and he reported the incident to Stalin – out of respect and as insurance against Stalin believing that he, Kirov, was a part of any conspiracy. And Stalin responded with anger.

In Party Congress elections, Kirov received more votes than did Stalin. Stalin lost his title as Secretary General and retained the title of Secretary. The friendship between Stalin and Kirov appeared to continue while the extent of any increase in Stalin seeing Kirov as a rival remains unknown. But what was unfolding was something common in history: those with dominant power using terror to protect that power.

In November 1934, Kirov's bodyguards arrested a man named Leonid Nikolayev, who was carrying a loaded revolver. They turned Nikolayev over to law enforcement – the NKVD – and with uncharacteristic leniency the NKVD gave Nikolayev his revolver and released him. Kirov's bodyguards arrested Nikolayev again with a revolver in late November. And again the NKVD released him. When Kirov's guards asked the NKVD why, they were told to mind their own business. Then on December 1, Nikolayev hid himself in the men's room at the Smolny Institute, where Kirov had his office. Kirov was walking to his office, without his usual bodyguards. It has been said that the NKVD removed most of the Smolny building's guards and that Kirov's personal guard was removed from the scene, clearing the way for Nikolayev. When Kirov stepped out of his office into the hallway, Nikolayev stepped behind him and shot him in the back.

In response to the assassination that same day, Stalin, with Molotov and Voroshilov, rushed by train to Leningrad. Accounts of the following are secondhand. Reliable firsthand accounts do not exist. What is said to have happened is as follows. Stalin was greeted by the head of the Leningrad NKVD, and Stalin struck the man in the face with his fist. NKVD agents dragged Nikolayev into a room filled with other NKVD agents, Stalin, and Leningrad Party Officials. Stalin, sitting behind a table, asked Nikolayev why he shot Kirov. Nikolayev fell to his knees, pointed to a group of NKVD police standing behind Stalin and said, "They forced me to do it." NKVD agents rushed to the assassin and beat him unconscious with their pistol butts and dragged him away.

That evening (December 1) Stalin ordered by telephone a decree that became the legal foundation for a new repression. – a decree that speeded and simplified procedures for handling "terrorist acts." It ordered courts to try cases involving people accused of terrorist acts without delay. Judicial authorities were not to allow appeals for clemency or other delays in which the sentence was death, and that the NKVD was to execute those sentenced to death immediately.

Such a decree was supposed to have Politburo approval. Politburo members were contacted individually and by December 3 they had given it their approval. On December 4 the new law was published by the news service that dominated the Soviet Union, the Party newspaper Pravda. The following day, under the new law, dozens of people not charged in connection with the Kirov assassination were executed by the NKVD, and before the month was over almost a hundred others were eliminated in the same way. Some old Bolsheviks were about to be devoured by the revolution they had helped create – not unlike what happened during the French Revolution.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.